WASHINGTON — This much can be said of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision on Thursday to bar two American congresswomen from entering Israel: He has unified the Democratic Party in its opposition to him.
Freshmen representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — who both support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel — have been polarizing figures within the caucus since their November 2018 arrival on Capitol Hill.
Democratic leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer had more than once argued that their views on the Mideast were marginal — that they are not representative of the party.
That seems to remain the case; a House resolution condemning the BDS movement overwhelmingly passed the chamber just a few weeks ago, with only 17 members of Congress, including Tlaib and Omar, voting against it.
But after Netanyahu apparently capitulated to US President Donald Trump’s demands that he prohibit Omar and Tlaib from visiting Israel — under a 2017 Israeli law that allows the country to ban any foreigner who knowingly promotes boycotts of Israel — he turned two figures who were sources of Democratic discord into victims of Israeli oppression.
As a consequence, pro-Israel activists in Washington say, the case for traditionally supportive postures on the Jewish state will henceforth be more difficult to make. In other words, Netanyahu just gave anti-Israel activists in America one of the biggest boosts they could possibly imagine.
“The political debate over Israel in this country is going to get more robust and more wide open,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, who heads the influential left-wing advocacy group J Street. “People who have serious criticism of what the [Israeli] government is doing are going to have the freedom to say what they want. There will be less fear of saying these things.”
“The unintended consequences of Netanyahu’s decision,” he went on, “is that he has opened it up for critics to push for ideas in the policy space that they couldn’t before.”
Indeed, on Friday, one of the leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidates amplified an idea that has long been discussed in progressive circles but has generally been a taboo subject for elected political leaders.
“If Israel doesn’t want members of the United States Congress to visit their country to get a firsthand look at what’s going on,” said Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, “maybe he can respectfully decline the billions of dollars that we give to Israel.”
Tweeted Omar on Friday: “As many of my colleagues have stated in the last 24 hours, we give Israel more than $3 billion in aid every year. This is predicated on their being an important ally in the region, and the ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East.
“Denying visits to duly elected Members of Congress is not consistent with being either an ally or a democracy. We should be leveraging that aid to stop the settlements and ensure full rights for Palestinians.”
While Netanyahu’s decision to prevent two serving US congresswomen from visiting Israel is deeply consequential, so, too, are the circumstances in which he made it.
In July, the Israeli government had promised that it would allow Omar and Tlaib to visit Israel and the West Bank. “Out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel,” Israeli envoy to Washington Ron Dermer said at the time.
But then, on Thursday, Trump tweeted: “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”
It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 15, 2019
Soon afterward, Jerusalem made its announcement. For Jewish Democrats who are some of the loudest voices advocating for Israel in the progressive space, the Israeli premier partnering with Trump to target the president’s political opponents makes their job all the more difficult.
It also suggests if not a willingness by the prime minister to help Trump turn Israel into a Republican cause, then at least a profound disinclination to risk irritating Trump, even at tremendous cost to bipartisan support for Israel — a vital, long-term Israeli interest.
“There’s no question that this was all part of Trump’s effort to continue to use Israel as a wedge issue, and to continue to politicize Israel, because this was all part of a calculation in term of his own self-interest,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
Trump, Soifer argued, wants to use Omar and Tlaib to paint the entire Democratic Party as anti-Israel — and then run with that theme in the 2020 presidential election, as most of the American electorate remains sympathetic to the Israeli cause.
“He wants to run in 2020 against a fictional Democratic Party, one that he claims is not supportive of Israel,” she told The Times of Israel. “So he’s using these two members of Congress as examples of his fictional Democratic Party when in fact they don’t represent the majority.”
So strong was Trump’s desire to accomplish this, Sofer continued, that he resorted to “taunting Netanyahu, saying [his allowing the lawmakers into Israel] would make him look weak.”
Now, the state of US-Israel relations is in a more precarious place than it has been in decades.
Not giving up
But liberal American Zionists are not fatalistic. Amanda Berman, who heads the Zioness movement, argued that most progressive Americans won’t totally give up on Israel, despite Netanyahu’s premiership, the same way they won’t totally give up on America, despite Trump’s leadership.
“We support America, which has taken an authoritarian direction that is decidedly undemocratic right now,” she said. “The problem with Israel is, criticism often becomes a referendum on Israel’s right to exist. And that’s not the direction the conversation takes with any other country when we criticize its policies.
“But one of the few upsides this week is that the entire community, with a couple of notable outliers, came down with the same message: We don’t support this policy [of banning critical, would-be visiting legislators], but we still support the state of Israel.”
That said, there will now be more oxygen for policy ideas to be advanced that rethink the nature of the US-Israel relationship, including by exerting more pressure on Israel to change its behavior if it wants to enjoy the same level of friendship from Washington.
“This is part of why J Street was started — to get this discussion going,” said Ben-Ami. “Surprisingly, it’s actually the actions of the right wing that have created the space for that.”